Have PNE left themselves with too much to do in race for the top six?

Back in September, talk of Preston being in play-off contention seven months down the line would have been regarded as fanciful.

By The Newsroom
Sunday, 26th March 2017, 7:00 pm
Updated Saturday, 8th April 2017, 10:29 pm
Preston's Callum Robinson challenges Newcastle midfielder Jonjo Shelvey at Deepdale in October
Preston's Callum Robinson challenges Newcastle midfielder Jonjo Shelvey at Deepdale in October

The 2-1 home defeat to Barnsley on September 10 left them second bottom of the Championship.

Not until later that month did the recovery start in earnest, the 3-0 win over Cardiff a false dawn with that 5-0 defeat at Brentford following.

North End began to get their act together with the 3-2 extra-time win at Bournemouth in the League Cup.

The rise has been steady since then, just five defeats in 30 games since.

Such consistent form, albeit without long runs of victories, sees them in ninth place and five points shy of the top-six as we draw breath during the international break.

Using Simon Grayson’s words, it all boils down to an eight-game season, one which kicks off against Nottingham Forest this weekend.

The question on the lips of all PNE fans now is whether the play-offs are a realistic target?

Will eight matches be sufficient to close the gap and overhaul what is above them?

In terms of what the landscape will look like come May 7, I think it is safe to assume that top two Newcastle and Brighton will still be in situ.

They have been strong throughout the season but have not been immune to a dip in form.

As they head to the top table of English football, it is what happens below and who ultimately joins them which will be fascinating.

Huddersfield occupy third place but it has to be said, looked anything but in their 4-0 defeat against Bristol City before the break.

I still expect them to make the play-offs, as will Leeds who are in fourth.

Garry Monk’s side are a strong unit, not quite as pleasing on the eye as 
Huddersfield and Reading, but damned effective.

Reading, in fifth, carry a six-point cushion into the final eight games.

That should be enough to see them contest the play-offs, but to say I was underwhelmed by Jaap Stam’s men at Deepdale a fortnight ago is something of an understatement.

Countering that stance, for them to bounce back and win at Sheffield Wednesday six days later was impressive.

So is the big battle the one for sixth spot, a four-way fight between the Owls, Fulham, Norwich and North End?

Wednesday are in the box seat but only just, with them a point better off than Fulham.

They are wobbling though, with four defeats, a draw and just one win in their last six.

Mind you, the win was a 5-1 thrashing of Norwich which perhaps shows just how unpredictable this Championship is.

After Fuham’s win over PNE and a 3-1 victory at Newcastle, you would have had them as odds-on to be the side to gatecrash the top six.

A 2-2 home draw with Blackburn, in which they conceded a last-minute goal, followed by defeat to Wolves at Craven Cottage, have slowed them down.

With a far superior goal difference and indeed a four-point lead over the Canaries and Preston, they have the upper hand in the chasing pack.

Interestingly, Fulham go to Hillsborough on the final day of the season.

They have Norwich and Huddersfield to play too, both away.

Norwich and North End are separated only by goal difference.

They meet at Deepdale on Easter Monday which could yet be a key clash.

If that game still has something riding on it, things will have gone well in the four games before.

So can Preston carry their season on beyond the first week in May?

They and Norwich are the outsiders and clearly there is plenty of work to do in closing the gap.

As Grayson has said a number of times, all the pressure is on others.

A fair assumption is Reading, Wednesday and Fulham are the clubs he is referring to, Norwich too, bearing in mind all have had larger budgets to fund a promotion-push.

It is likely to be the next three away games which will make or break PNE’s chances – their opponents being Leeds, Huddersfield and Newcastle.

Forest and Bristol City come first at Deepdale, their form at home strong in recent months and on which they have launched this late push.

Then it is back-to-back trips to West Yorkshire, at Elland Road a week on Saturday and then the John Smith’s Stadium on Good Friday.

Norwich come north on Easter Monday, then it is off to St James’ Park a week later on television.

Were PNE to maintain their home form, what would they need out of that trio of away games?

I would hazard a guess at four points minimum, maybe five.

The campaign closes with a home game against Rotherham and a trip to Wolves – both winnable.

It is the road trips to Leeds, Huddersfield and Newcastle, which have the potential to stall them.

North End are seven games without a victory on their travels, although they have drawn five of those matches.

The last away win was at Burton on January 2, one they achieved ‘ugly’ to coin a phrase.

It might be they need to do similar, dig in on their travels a touch more.

Last season, 74 points was enough for sixth place – it needed 78 the year 

In 2013/14, Brighton were sixth with 72 points.

Six wins from the last eight would take North End on to 75 points, that a tough ask but not impossible.

The cold view of it, is that the play-offs do look beyond reach, all things considered.

I do think Preston have left themselves with a bit too much to do, bearing in mind who they have to play away.

Who knows, they might yet find their form on the road.

In summary, I predict Newcastle finishing top, Brighton second, with Leeds third, Huddersfield fourth, Reading fifth and Fulham edging out Wednesday for sixth.

Then it is Wednesday seventh, with North End eighth.

I do hope I am wrong and PNE get a crack at the play-offs.